The two battles listed here changed history because they led to other greater battles that set the shape of our modern world.
For example, there would have been no British victories at Malta and El Alamein, no Allied air campaign in Western Europe, or Allied invasion of Normandy without British victory in 1940. In addition, the Russians would have had a far harder time in World War II without the British. The Germans and Italians could have diverted the forces that fought in North Africa to Russia, for instance.
The Germans could have deployed their entire air force and hundreds of additional artillery pieces to the Russian Front, for instance. Instead, Hitler diverted most of his fighter planes and much of his artillery to defend German cities from British, Canadian, and American bombers by 1942.
Most importantly, the British and Americans won the air war over Europe in 1944 from British bases. Allied Armies only overran Germany in 1945 because they had destroyed the German air force. Without British bases that victory was unlikely.
In addition, most of the great battles of World War I, Yrpes, the Somme, Gallipoli, Verdun, would never have occurred without the Marne. The Allies could only keep fighting in World War I because they occupied Northern France and the ports through which supplies and British Empire and American troops landed.
Moreover, powers like Turkey, Italy, and the United States only entered World War I because it dragged on so long. Those countries could have stayed neutral had the war not dragged on into 1915, 1916, and 1917.
Therefore, World War I might have never spread to the Middle East and the Turkish Ottoman Empire could have survived into the 20th Century. The Ottoman Empire; which controlled what became the Iraqi and Saudi Arabian oil fields, collapsed after defeat in 1918.
Thus, the most important battles in history are often those that lead to other battles.
The Battle of Britain July-October 1940
Strangely, the Battle of Britain was not a battle. Instead, it was an air campaign that lasted from July 1940 to October 1940. The campaign makes the list because it was the first battle in which the technology was more important than the people.
Technology had been the decisive factor in battles before. But the summer of 1940 was the first time technology was the only factor in a campaign’s success. Essentially, the British won because they had the better technology; advanced fighter planes, air defenses, and radar. Moreover, the Germans lost because their technology (planes) was not as good as the British.
Additionally, the Battle of Britain gave the world a glimpse of wars to come. To explain, campaigns waged by tiny highly trained elite forces equipped with advanced technologies. In fact, the most famous quip about the battle is Winston Churchill’s remark: “never was so much owed by so many to so few” about the fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF).
Consequently, the Battle of Britain was the first time most military personnel; like most civilians, became spectators. Everybody in Britain from army privates to the King had to stare helplessly at the sky and pray the RAF would win. They knew if the RAF lost, the Nazis would come.
The War Machine as Hero
Few people; except possibly Churchill, realized it at the time but the world had entered a new era. They stopped one of the greatest war machines in history because a few pieces of its technology failed.
Importantly, the greatest “hero” of the Battle of Britain was a war machine the legendary Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane. Tellingly, the Spitfire was so popular, that one of the first movies about the Battle of Britain; 1942’s Spitfire or First of the Few, was about the plane and its designer R. J. Mitchell -not the heroic pilots of the RAF.
Despite its ramifications, the Battle of Britain was a simple affair. Hitler wanted to invade England, but he couldn’t because the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) could not win control of the air. The Luftwaffe failed, because of deficiencies in its technology. Major Luftwaffe deficiencies included the lack of long-range fighter planes and heavy bombers, in particular.
The Battle of Britain did not lead to Hitler’s defeat; The Fuhrer’s stupidity did that, but it saved Britain and perhaps European democracy. Nazi Germany had the industrial and technological capacity to build a new fleet of planes capable of wiping out the RAF in a few months. Fortunately, Hitler did not use that capacity, and turned his attention to Russia which led to his destruction.
Plus, the Battle of Britain showed World War II was a technological conflict, and convinced the United States to make massive investments in military technology that led to final victory. For instance, the Battle of Britain frightened US decision makers into investing in the atomic bomb and the development of better fighter planes and massive long-range bombers by the Nazi blitz.
The First Battle of the Marne September 6-12 1914
There were bigger and bloodier battles in World War I but none changed history like the First Battle of the Marne.
Essentially, the Germans had an excellent opportunity to overrun Paris and win the war in less than a month. However, the German Supreme Command threw the opportunity away with lack of foresight and bad decision making.
At the start of World War One, the Germans tried to repeat their success in the Franco-Prussian War with a swift, devastating attack on France. The original German strategy, the Schlieffen Plan called for the occupation of neutral Belgium; and the seizure of Paris, before France’s ally Britain could deploy troops to the Continent.
How German Technology helped Save Paris from the German Army
However, the Schlieffen Plan broke down when the Belgians fought back and the British quickly deployed their Regular Army to France. By 6 September 1914, the Germans were within 30 miles (48 km) of Paris but the fighting exhausted them. The Imperial German Army of 1914, unlike the Wehrmacht of 1940, moved on foot.
In addition, the German generals had made a terrible blunder, they left a 20 mile gap between two armies north Paris. The French commander General Joseph “Papa” Joffre noticed this mistake and took advantage by launching a counterattack through the gap.
Two new technologies allowed Joffre to capitalize on the German blunder. First, Joffre was aware of the gap because of aerial reconnaissance. French pilots spotted the gap and took pictures of it.
Second, Joffre moved troops to the gap fast by commandeering 600 Paris taxi cabs for transport. Ironically, Joffre used a German invention, the automobile, to stop a German offensive. A German – Karl Benz invented the automobile in 1885.
Instead of a triumphant entry into Paris. The Germans endured six weeks of fighting that led to 250,000 casualties. After the Marne, the German commander Helmuth von Moltke told Kaiser Wilhelm II they had lost the war. Sadly, Wilhelm failed to listen, and the war dragged on for four more years.
How German Mistakes saved Paris
Ultimately, German mistakes were responsible for what the French call the “Miracle of the Marne.”
The greatest mistake was the decision to invade neutral Belgium to facilitate a swift attack on France. Invading Belgium, a British ally, gave the British a pretext to enter the war and send their powerful army to help defend Paris.
Another blunder was not taking advantage of new technology particularly trucks. Germany had the world’s oldest and most advanced auto industry in 1914. In fact, the Germans could have built tanks in 1914 if they wished. However, the German soldier of 1914 still moved at the same speed as the Roman legionnaire.
In 1914, the Germans also lacked fighter planes which could have shot down the French observers and blinded Joffre’s armies. The technology to create fighters was available in 1914 Germany. Within three years, the Germans had the world’s most advanced fighter squadron; and its most famous fighter ace the Red Barron, on the Western Front.
Finally, the German Army of 1914 was too disorganized to carry out the maneuvers needed to capture Paris. Tellingly, the Supreme Command did not notice a 20-mile gap in its lines until the French were pouring through. Better organization; or more vigilant commanders, could have closed the gap and forced the French to abandon Paris.
How the Marne made the Modern World
The German failure at the Marne led to four years of brutal trench warfare that cost 10 million lives. Moreover, World War I became a world war slowly dragging in other powers including Turkey, Italy, Japan, the United States, and even China.
Had the Germans won at the Marne, World War I could have ended in 1914 and never become a world war. Instead, the British and the Germans could have settled their differences at the negotiating table. Powers like Italy, Turkey, Japan, China, and the United States would have probably stayed out of the conflict.
Notably, the 10 million men killed in the trench fighting on the Western Front could have been alive in 1919. That alone could have made vast differences in European society.
Moreover, without four years of prolonged warfare the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires could have survived well into the 20th Century. Thus, the political map of Europe and the world could have looked very different.
With a German victory on the Marne, there might have no Russian Revolution, or an earlier Russian Revolution without Lenin. Thus, no Soviet Union or Communism. In addition, without German defeat in 1918 Hitler might have never had a political career so there could have been no Nazism, no World War II, and no Holocaust.
Importantly, technological advancement could have slowed if World War I ended in 1914. Airplanes, for instance, developed fast because of wartime investment in air forces. Tanks; which the British created to cross the trenches, might have never been invented. Furthermore, armies improved trucks to develop effective motorized transport.
Thus, the First Battle of the Marne was probably the most important battle of the 20th Century. Without French and British victory on the Marne in 1914, many of the political and technological developments that shaped our modern world would not have occurred.
History shows that the first battle of the war is often the most important. However, the Marne teaches that people rarely grasp that battle’s importance, until it is over.